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March 08. 2014 11:08PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Aging catchers cause for concern

When the Red Sox contingent made its trip to Jupiter last week, now-Marlin Jarrod Saltalamacchia left little doubt about which side he would have preferred to be on.

Meeting with reporters, Saltalamacchia said he'd told general manager Ben Cherington he wanted to remain with Boston but received a less than enthusiastic response. The Red Sox, the team's former catcher claimed, made the lowest of the six offers he received, so he opted for the security and certainty that accompanied a move to Miami.

Meanwhile, back in Fort Myers, David Ross - the man who took Saltalamacchia's job for the final three games of last fall's World Series - was undergoing treatment for an inflamed tendon in his foot, an injury, caused by insoles in his shoes, that kept him out of the lineup until Friday.

At the same time, A.J. Pierzysnki - the free agent signed to take Saltalamacchia's spot on the Red Sox' roster - also was out, having rolled his ankle on Monday for the second time this spring. He, too, cited faulty footwear, and remained sidelined until Saturday.

That both backstops were back within a week suggests neither ailment is, or was, in itself a major concern. But the juxtaposition of those issues and Saltalamacchia's laments can't be so easily ignored, because it illustrates the risk the Red Sox took when they decided to go with a pair of 37-year-olds behind the plate while letting the in-his-prime 28-year-old leave via free agency.

In theory, the decision to swap Saltalamacchia for Pierzynski, while planning to give Ross a greater workload than the typical back-up catcher, could work out fine. Pierzynski is just a season removed from the American League's Silver Slugger award at the position and has been a good offensive player throughout his career. Ross is more limited with the bat but is a renowned receiver who pitchers love throwing to.

If Pierzynski retains his durable track record, if Ross is fully recovered from last season's concussion issues, and if both can simply be the same guys they've been to this point in their careers, Saltalamacchia's absence should be negligibly noticeable.

But recent history says those are all big ifs, calling into question the wisdom of relying so heavily on two players with so many miles on their odometers.

Over the past decade, the average age of the primary catcher on playoff teams has been barely 29 years old, with only the 2009 Yankees, 2009 Red Sox and 2006 Padres reaching the postseason with that player being at least 37 years old - and that Sox team, it should be noted wound up finishing the season with a 30-year-old Victor Martinez behind the plate in place of Jason Varitek.

Factoring in a team's chief backup, only 10 clubs since 2004 have reached the playoffs with a catching tandem that averaged older than 33 years, with five of those duos including Jorge Posada of the Yankees. By comparison, 15 teams over that span have made it to October with their top two catchers younger than 27 on average, and 21 teams have reached the postseason with neither of their top two catchers having yet turned 30.

Durability is a legitimate concern for the Sox, considering that of the 426 catchers who've had at least 200 plate appearances in a season since 2004, only 48 (11 percent) were even 35 years old. Only 16 of those (or 4 percent of the whole) were at least 37, and 10 of those players hit .237 or worse.

That speaks to the fact that the question isn't only a catcher-related issue for the Sox; it's productivity, too.

Because catching is so taxing on the body, the consequences tend to show up in the numbers, which is why over the past decade catchers under the age of 35 have been five times as likely to hit .300, 30 percent more likely to hit 15 home runs, 33 percent more likely to post an on-base plus slugging of at least .800, and 39 percent more likely to be worth at least one win above replacement (WAR) over the length of a season.

Those numbers could prove especially relevant to the 2014 Red Sox because for the past two years they've had one of the AL's most offensively productive catchers in their lineup - and age alone now makes it look unlikely they'll get what Saltalamacchia gave them last season.

That included a .273 average, a statistic only 19 percent of catchers 35 or older have matched since '04. It also included a .338 on-base percentage (equaled or bettered by only 28 percent of catchers 35-plus), a .466 slugging percentage (7 percent), an .804 OPS (13 percent), 14 homers (20 percent), 40 doubles (2 percent), 65 runs batted in (11 percent), and a 3.6 WAR total (11 percent).

So, then, it would seem unlikely that a pair of 37-year-olds will make up for that missing production. That they've both already been dealing with physical restraints, however minor, does not seem to bode well.

That's particularly vexing given that the team's next catching option, Ryan Lavarnway, doesn't seem to have earned the confidence of the Sox pitching staff, and that the two players next in line, Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez, are complete unknowns at the big-league level.Saltalamacchia knows how the Sox could have avoided such uncertainty. In fact, he says, he wanted to help. But instead, the Sox opted to go older, so now all they can do is make sure Pierzynski and Ross have the right shoes on, hope Butler and Vazquez and Blake Swihart remain on the major-league fast track ... and hold their breaths.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@yahoo.com.


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